How we screen our vacations - in detail

When you book a Responsible Travel vacation you can be sure that we’ve screened every trip for responsible tourism.

We wish this was a straightforward and easy process, but it’s not. We’ve been screening tour operators and trips since 2000. Here’s what we learnt and a summary of our approach:

The ideal world

In an ideal world we would review detailed data on the social, environmental and economic impacts of every vacation on our site. However, no such data yet exists – we’ve never seen anything even close to it. The reasons for this are:

1. That tourism is a service industry, made up of a wide variety of supply chain elements with diverse impacts across the triple bottom line, and is inherently more complex to evaluate than for example a simple product. A single tour on our site might include:

- A flight (different routes, different types of plane, some direct flights and some not)
- Several different forms of ground transportation (cars, trains, taxis, canoes, tuk-tuk, river boats etc)
- Several different accommodations
- Food provision in accommodations and several different restaurants
- Visits to several different protected areas or animal welfare centers
- Conservation volunteering
- Guiding services
- Cultural visits – visitor attractions or community based

In all of them there will be social, environmental and economic impacts to assess. By comparison Fair trade certification (where the price needs to be referenced vs. global commodity markets and working condition assessed) or organic food certification (where pesticides need to be eliminated) are relatively simple.

2. That tourism is unusual because the importance of the impacts is different in different places. In Ireland water is not such a major issue than in sub Saharan Africa. Poverty is a major issue in Nepal but not in Norway etc... This means that every single country, or even parts of the same country, will need a different weighting or set of criteria – and possibly different ones for different seasons of the year.

3. Again tourism is unusual because the customer, not just the product is part of the impact. If you buy a sustainably sourced piece of wood you can be sure that a reasonable level of sustainability has been achieved. If a tourist chooses a very good accommodation with excellent sustainable tourism practices but visits an over-busy destination in peak season; behaves badly and causes offence in the local community; wanders off designated wildlife areas; or turns up the Aircon etc then the vacation is not sustainable. This means that to get rigorous data you need to screen both the supply chain AND the impacts and behaviour of customers.

4. Cost. The cost of screening this level of complexity would be very high, and prohibitive to the many small and medium size businesses in tourism (including those in developing countries where tourism is growing quickly).

What forms of screening exist?

There have been a great many – well over 100 – different accreditation schemes aimed at accommodations. More recently efforts have been made to create a common framework – under the global sustainable tourism criteria.

These schemes are currently unable to give confidence that sustainability criteria are being met and they reward progress rather than absolute achievement. Going from awful to poor would be regarded as progress and lead to an accreditation. You can read more on this here. There are also criteria for tour companies, but these are much newer and less widely adopted.

There are some other issues associated with these schemes as a tool for us...

1. Many of the best accommodations in terms of sustainability – especially those in developing countries - are not accredited and can’t afford the work required to gather all the data and be inspected etc. We want to offer the broadest selection of vacations we can that meet high standards of sustainability, not just those that can afford accreditation.

2. The tour operator accreditation operates primarily at a company-wide level. That’s great, but we want a customer who is booking a trip to know what the specific trip they are looking is doing in terms of sustainability. Again most of the very best and most responsible tour companies in the world are not signed up to these schemes, cost being one barrier.

3. As before the tourist is also part of the impacts and these schemes provide no way to capture or encourage their participation.

4. As before the impact or scale of impacts is different in each destination. For example, if access to water or poverty is the overwhelming issue in any destination I would far rather they focus all their efforts on this than tackling a long list of 150 odd sustainability criteria, some of which maybe irrelevant locally.

Our approach

Whilst we recognise these initiatives above they do not provide us with the tools we need to screen tour companies globally; provide trip by trip examples of sustainability; excite and engage customers or focus on the big issues that are relevant locally rather than long check list of criteria that might not be.

Instead we built our own approach back in 2000 with the help of leading academics to help us try to achieve our ambitions. Our scheme is very far from perfect. We are a very long way off being able to measure the impacts of our tours, or provide a cast iron guarantee to customers. However, our method enables us, our suppliers and our customers to continually learn and feedback to each other around ways to improve.

In addition to screening what we do sell, over the years we’ve also built a black list of things we won’t sell .

This list is continually evolving as we research new issues, or they are brought to our attention by customers or our NGO partners. We use these two mechanics – screening and blacklist - together.

In regards to screening we require six things of our tour operator members:

1. A company-wide responsible tourism policy.

2. For every trip on our site a description of its approach to responsible tourism written in a way that is both substantive AND engaging for customers (who are part of the impacts too).

3. A commitment to transparency – will publish both of the above on our site for tourists to read and to review on our after their trip.

4. A willingness to accept that we will actively solicit customer feedback on their sustainability practices and publish this as part of the reviews on their trip. We also work with a range of NGO’s to actively solicit feedback on our trips.

5. A willingness to engage with customer’s feedback and comments on their policies and act on any issues they reveal.

6. To accept that we may (and have) remove their trips from the site if we discover their practices do not meet our criteria.

The overall intention is to create the ability for our tour operators' members to engage with our customers, and the NGO’s we work with, to continuously improve sustainability practices. It’s a living and breathing mechanism for change, involving the industry and tourists, rather than a static and opaque accreditation.


1. Company-wide policies
Details of how we screen companies requesting to join us can be found here

2. Trip by trip policies (we call ‘making a difference’)
Rather than a long list of 100’s of criteria that may or may not be relevant locally we asked members to identify the 2 biggest issues that affect the environment, and the two biggest that affect local communities (we provide a general list) and ask them to describe what they are doing to address these. Details of our trip screening process can be found here

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